THE SILENCE IS CREEPY. This time of year–this exact week–taxpayer groups and parents and students in some combination usually take every opportunity to try to convince voters to kill or support school district budget propositions, citing how deep an impact the proposed spending plans will have on their wallets or their futures, or both.
Earlier this year, as school boards prepared their budgets, some groups and individuals condemned plans to cut programs, but boards either found creative ways to fund what people most wanted or else the seriousness of the situation began to sink in with the public, causing people to realize that the money they demanded for their programs could only come from unacceptably high local property taxes.
Go down our chart of Columbia County school budgets in this edition, and you will see that every district has planned for reduced spending compared to the current year. That’s not surprising. The state has delayed making its last school aid payment to districts, and the governor has proposed cutting $1.4 billion from public school aid statewide. The legislature, meanwhile, has all but abandoned its efforts to adopt a state budget, because lawmakers can’t level with their constituents. The old tricks and the shady accounting that Albany used in the past to invent imaginary pools of cash won’t work anymore. The money just ain’t there.
The state School Boards Association estimates that nearly 15,000 teachers could lose their jobs as the 2010-11 school year budgets take effect. Just look around this county and you can see how quickly the numbers could add up. We calculate as many as 150 teachers and other school district staff may be out of jobs. It might be fewer if the budget picture improves slightly, but it’s still terrible news in a county where the unemployment rate in March of this year was exactly where it was a year earlier, before the economy began to inch toward recovery.
Why’s it so quiet? Maybe some taxpayers suffer from anger fatigue; with so many economic punching bags, who can focus long enough one group of bad guys to work up a real lather toward any particular one? Or perhaps voters realize that the harrowing school cuts constitute an appropriate response to this crisis. Tax levies will still rise no matter what voters do at the polls, because of big increases in the cost of funding pensions and other fixed expenses. School districts have little control over those costs.
All that the school boards could do was toss some of their neighbors out of work, people who have dedicated their lives to the essential task of educating our children. You can’t ask for a tougher response than that.
The painful process might yield some unanticipated benefits. For a while anyway, voters will undoubtedly expect school boards to keep the lid on costs, and boards will know that they can do it. And possibly some districts will learn that they have not so much downsized as right-sized their faculty and staff.
Once upon a time experts insisted that that the larger class sizes resulting from fewer teachers would seriously impair how well students learned. Now that premise will be put to the test, with students here and across the state used as the guinea pigs. What if it turns out that, up to a point, class size doesn’t matter? That might change how school boards around the county plan for a future in which enrollment is predicted to decrease.
Public frustration over government spending hasn’t retreated this season, it has just redirected its focus. For example, at a hearing on the proposed budget for the Village of Chatham this week, almost 40 residents turned out, many of them appalled by a proposed tax increase of over 12%. The audience became increasingly frustrated during the session as the mayor and board members offered no examples of where they had cut the budget, nor did they promise to reduce spending before adopting their plan.
That type of arrogance will not make the problem go away. On the contrary, taxpayers have reached the breaking point, and elected officials who ignore or rebuff the public’s concerns invite more scrutiny and criticism.
That isn’t the case with school districts this year. School boards have done the best they could with dwindling resources. They have given us voters what we say we want. It’s only right that we recognize what they’ve accomplished and vote Yes for this year’s budgets.